Saturday, September 11, 2010

EVM misuse – Who will Bell the Cat?

It's not without good reason that the politicians are called strange bed fellows. They are expert in their own way not only in sleeping with the enemies but also change their stand on any issue under the sky, given the context what's their immediate benefits are. A few years ago, the then Punjab chief minister and dynamic Congress leader in the northern region, Capt. Amarinder Singh, had staged a demonstration in the office of a reputed editor of a Chandigarh daily trying to argue that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) could be misused.
Not long ago, EVMs were billed as an instrument of panacea in organizing elections and which could deal with mal practices of Indian electoral system. However, the table has seemingly taken a gory turn since 2004.
At the national level Congress has bounced back to power and five years since then with a renewed and resurgent mandate in May 2009.
So the general refrain of the political class being, how can Congress now complain of the EVMs.
Worse, the BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has virtually sanctified the theory by suggesting that EVMs are now the “Elections Voting Machines” (sic) for the Congress.
Now, when was the last time, we heard that misuse of EVMs is only a rhetoric of losers.
The Election Commission has quickly denied rather authoritatively that EVMs in India (ECI-EVMs) are stand alone objects and cannot be misused.
This is too simplistic part of the story.
But there are evidences in several parts of the world where experts claim the electronic voting machines were subject to gross abuse resulting in questioning the very credibility of the democratic process.
Theoretically, these arguments have basically raised questions on the credibility of Indian election system, something which had gained much respect globally especially the post T N Seshan era.
So an argument has been placed forward that instead of questioning the intention of those raising the bogey of misuse of EVM machines, the authorities, the UPA government, the Congress party and importantly the Election Commission would do well to appreciate the sincerity of purpose. And in the ultimate, help arrive some conclusive and much importantly a credible conclusion that the EVMs in use in India are above board.
This is what is being suggested by a former IAS officer and ex-chief secretary Delhi government, Omesh Saigal. “It is an important issue as the fate of this country’s democratic set-up hinges on the fairness of the elections. There shouldn’t be an iota of doubt about the same,” he says.
Saigal also cited a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University and Rice University, which established that if one gets to know the “source code” of an EVM, it is possible for a single person to cast unlimited ballots without detection.
“To see if a similar fraud could be done in India, on my request a young programmer wrote a very simple programme which could skew the result if a pre-programmed code number was keyed in. A mock poll showed that every 5th vote after the first 10 would go in favour of a particular candidate. This poll was conducted in the presence of some eminent people, whose names were sent to the chief election commissioner, Naveen Chawla,” Saigal had said.
However, Saigal later, according to Election Commission officials, refused to stage a demonstration with EC-given EVMs at the Commission office in August 2009.

International Experience:

Electronic voting systems for electorates have been in use since the 1960s. So the hype that the technology is something latest and a 21st century phenomenon is itself a misnomer.
To put record straight, electronic voting system, albeit with differences in specifications, have been used in several countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Netherlands, Estonia, Canada and of course Uncle Sam, the US.
But the developments in certain countries could not be over sighted. After all, as says former Delhi chief secretary, Saigal, election in a democracy like justice should not be simply be fair but also seen as fair and above board.
In Netherlands, the electronic voting machines have been decommissioned after public protests.
There have been contentions, especially in the United States, that electronic voting, specifically DRE voting, could facilitate electoral fraud.
Meanwhile, computer scientists in the US have demonstrated how electronic voting machines (EVM) can be hacked and votes ‘stolen’ using a malicious programming approach that had not been invented when the voting machine was designed. The team of scientists from the Universites of California, San Diego, Michigan and Princeton employed "return-oriented programming" to force an electronic voting machine to turn against itself. Hovav Shacham, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego's (UC-SD) Jacobs School of Engineering and a study co-author, demonstrated that return-oriented programming can be used to execute vote-stealing computations by taking control of an EVM designed to prevent the code injection.

However, the school of thought, which believes firmly that EVMs can be misused and were misused in India, has sounded skeptical about Election Commission’s modus operandi in inviting people to demonstrate about the possibility of ‘tamperibility’.
A sustained campaign is still on in the internet and blogs and not surprisingly many of the participants are technocrats and a sizeable of them from abroad.
One argument from this school of thought has gone like this. “It was a trick played by concerned people, probably with the blessing and active participation of Congress party. To demonstrate the possibility of abuse of EVMs, one has to know the inner details of the programming configuration,” they say. So the refrain being if a section of people, including in political parties know about it, they could misuse it very well.
Another argument has been the Indian EVM is not a computer it is like a calculator. So to decode a calculator is much more difficult, they say but not impossible if there are players “within inner circles” to help you.
Possibilities of Fraud:
One cannot make a value judgement simply based on these theories. However, certain pertinent questions remain to be answered effectively.
Are EVMs vulnerable to hacking/misuse? Could the software of EVM be programmed to alter the outcome? From the global experience, are EVMs more susceptible to fraud than other types of voting machines?
Now take a closer look at these possibilities, as suggested by software professionals.
Someone doing fraudulent and moving 2-5% of the votes from one major party's candidate to the other would be very unlikely to be detected.

On these if precautions are taken like never reduce a candidate’s total votes to a questionable minimum can always ensure that there’s no suspicion raised.
For instance, it could be ensured that winnability of some candidates is not put to question. Vijay Malhotra as BJP leader or Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee need not be defeated.

Next, it is “possible” for a malevolent software developer to successfully insert suspect code.
There’s another aspect to it. Unlike the situation when poll rigging meant violence and involving larger number of people, when computers/EVMs are involved, a small number of individuals could be easily ‘managed’.

Another vital aspect that could not be neglected or overruled; it is not technology that is in question; it is the trust of the official machinery and officials. If a guard protecting the EVMs could be bribed so that a bribed engineer can load a suitable programme to the EVMs, which technology could save one.
There are also technical possibilities on how EVMs can be tampered, essentially through insertion of virus Trojan. To outward appearances and ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage say 55-60 to the preferred party.
Experts also suggest, a chip’s internal circuitry cannot be verified after it is manufactured. There can be hardly a guarantee that all the chips manufactured were as per original design.
The size, appearance, and even the Unique ID of the Chip would be emulated as it is, and thus it is extremely difficult to verify, if the current Chip components used is indeed the original one.
In Tamil Nadu, in fact, during the parliamentary elections there were allegations by AIADMK supporters, voters and party workers that the LIGHT lit to the wrong party inspite them pressing the button of AIADMK candidates.
Apparently, Jaya TV showed a protest by about 200 voters and group clashes with the workers from the ruling party.
The refrain from this campaign basically is, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of any fraud.
However, in the ultimate, the responsibility and the authority to take the final call on this vital aspect of Indian democracy are with the Election Commission.
The Commission’s official response is: it is “amply satisfied about the non-tamperability and the fool-proof working of the EVMs.” The Commission’s confidence in the efficacy of the EVMs has been fortified by the judgments of various courts and the views of technical experts. The Karnataka High Court has once hailed the EVM as ‘a national pride’ (judgment dated 5.2.2004 in Michael B. Fernandes Vs C.K.Jaffer Sharief and others in E.P No 29 of 1999), they say. Similarly, the Madras High Court, after elaborate consideration of the issue in a batch of petitions in 2001, rejected allegations that the EVMs could be tampered.

To be continued…../..

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